The Other Ghibli Mastermind.
When I mention Studio Ghibli, it is probably almost instinctive that the first name that comes to your head be Hayao Miyazaki, and why shouldn’t it? With the impressive array of features on his CV, including a number of box office record breakers. And despite being described as a Ghibli “co-founder”, it is perhaps Miyazaki’s influences that shine through most prominently in the studio’s releases.
However, when I mention Studio Ghibli, there is another name that springs forward to me, the name of a director who first showed me how realistic and emotional an anime can be. I refer, of course to the second founding father of Studio Ghibli: Isao Takahata.
I first stumbled across Takahata when I ventured into the Studio Ghibli collections as a teen. I’d watched and enjoyed Princess Mononoke, I’d been exposed to the recent releases of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, and I still wanted more. My first resource was the internet. I browsed through review websites, trawled for recommendations, and eventually established that “Grave of the Fireflies”, was the most consistently high rated Ghibli film. (I was later to find this view matched by highly acclaimed american film critic, Roger Ebert).
I am one of those people who believes an ending has the ability to make a film, and despite Grave of the Fireflies being engaging throughout, it is the heart-wrenching end that makes it really hit home. It is without a doubt, the most moving film I have ever seen. Imagine Atonement (if you’ve seen it), then multiply the emotional impact by ten. Needless to say, I spent most of that afternoon watery eyed…
At that point in time, I hadn’t really taken note of who the director of the film was, and it wasn’t until much later that I really established my admiration for Takahata. Subsidized partially by my student loan, I invested in Pom Poko and Only Yesterday, two further Takahata films, and they instantly climbed up to the top of my list of favourite films.
Pom Poko watches like what could be any Hayao Miyazaki film (it follows the story of a group of raccoons who find their home being destroyed in order to create a new suburb of Tokyo), and as it was his original concept, perhaps that explains a lot. Where it differs from Miyazaki is the ending. Pom Poko has, once again, impact. It takes you on a journey, perhaps similar to a Miyazaki film, you are introduced to the characters, you cheer on their crusade, but this time the meaning really hits home. There’s no magical spirit to save the day. There’s no single hero whose brave sacrifice will save the world. There is only a stark sense of realism, instilling guilt and sympathy into each and every watcher. I look at at Pom Poko, and I can’t help but wonder how much more effective could Miyazaki’s works be with a similarly strong and emotional finale? But then again, maybe that’s not what the Box Office wants.
Which brings me to the subject of “Only Yesterday”. I have no doubt that Only Yesterday is one of the most underrated Ghibli titles, and that probably comes down to the fact that it’s so different from the rest of them. It is not an epic, environmental fantasy following the endeavors of a strong moralled young main character in their attempts to save the world. No, it is much more sedate. Only Yesterday follows Taeko Okajima, a 27 year old office worker, as she embarks on her summer holiday to visit the Japanese countryside. She stays with her sister’s husband’s family, and works on the farm there, the type of holiday she had longed for as a child.
Throughout the film, Taeko is bothered by memories of her 10 year old self, and she reflects on these with members of the cast in ways that are perhaps more significant than we, or she, realise.
Although a lot of the film is spent watching the 10 year old Taeko, you are found sympathising with the older, selfless Taeko with whom you are introduced at the beginning of the film, each memory and subsequent wistful reflection only serve to give a deeper understanding and empathy for her character.
Only Yesterday expresses a story that you wouldn’t normally imagine suitable to an animated adaptation, but it shows conclusively how well anime can represent reality, and how subtle animation can affect the way a story is viewed, a lesson that I wish was heeded more often in the anime community.
It is no surprise that Only Yesterday’s ending isn’t as hard hitting as Grave of the Fireflies, or even Pom Poko, but it creates an emotional link that my words could not give justice, and I firmly believe it to be the most artistic story expressed by Studio Ghibli to this day.
I am disappointed that there have been few Takahata directed movies to enjoy in recent years, the last being 1999 comedy “My Neighbours the Yamadas”, however I am soon to be relieved of my wait. It was announced last September that Isao Takahata would be directing a film named “Taketori Monogatari”, or “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale, and I can’t wait to get my teeth into it, and see how his style has progressed, hopefully for the better.